As October 13, 1939 ended, the HMS Royal Oak was sitting in the relative quiet of Scapa Flow. Located within the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland, Scapa Flow was a natural harbor surrounded by islands (right about here). Its beauty as a harbor had been recognized as far back as ships had been in the area…at least to the time of the Vikings.
The British had fortified it, adding some “water hazards” in the form of ships, sunk at strategic locations, scattered around the entrances. Floating booms operated by tugboats were installed and underwater cables were also run. Scapa Flow was deemed secure from sea (particularly submarine) attack.
With the “formal” outbreak of hostilities between Germany and Britain in September of 1939, Scapa Flow became important again…to both sides of the conflict. The Germans saw it as a big threat to their North Atlantic raiding missions and the British saw it as, well, a big threat to the German North Atlantic raiding missions. Early on, Karl Donitz (at that time the main submarine guy) wanted to get into Scapa Flow and put the hurt on the large British fleet there.
His man for the job was Gunther Prien, a daring and skilled sub commander. And so, as October 13, 1939 ended, Prien’s submarine (the U-47) was also in the relative quiet of Scapa Flow. Having carefully threaded the harbor’s defenses, he was looking for targets…but the fleet was gone. I mentioned earlier that the British believed Scapa Flow to be safe from sea attack. But recent overflights by German reconaissance aircraft had the British a little bit nervous about air attacks. And so most of the fleet had been dispersed.
The HMS Royal Oak had not.
This WWI-era battleship was no longer a front-line ship. Her recent foray into the North Atlantic in pursuit of the Gneisenau (a German battleship) had solidified the fact that the Mighty Oak (as she was called) could no longer keep up with the more modern ships and no longer had the matching firepower or armor. And what’s more, the worsening weather had left the old battlewagon bruised, battered, and in need of repair. So she remained in Scapa Flow as a floating anti-aircraft platform…
…and a target for U-47. As October 14, 1939 began, Captain Prien had spotted Royal Oak and fire a spread of torpedoes. Only one hit the ship’s bow, causing the seaman onboard to believe something had exploded in the front of the ship, but no serious alarm was raised. U-47 turned around and fired another spread, and all three hit with devastating effect. The Royal Oak quickly listed, then rolled, then sank 13 minutes later. Despite being just half a mile from the shore, 833 men died in the attack.
And U-47 disappeared into the morning darkness and returned to a hero’s welcome in Germany. Donitz, his boss, was promoted to Admiral, and every member of the crew received a medal. War had come to the British Navy.
Recommended Reading: The Royal Oak website – A bunch of great information.